What is the major league baseball ? The origin of modern baseball is usually considered the formal organization of the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1842. The rules they played by evolved into the rules of the organized leagues surviving today. In 1845 they organized into a dues paying club in order to rent the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey to play their games on a regular basis. Typically these were amateur teams in name, but almost always featured a few players who were covertly paid.
The National Association of Base Ball Players was organized in 1858 in recognition of the profit potential of baseball. The first admission fee (50 cents) was charged that year for an All Star game between the Brooklyn and New York clubs. The association formalized playing rules and created an administrative structure.
The original association had 22 teams, and was decidedly amateur in theory, if not practice, banning direct financial compensation for players. In reality of course, the ban was freely and wantonly ignored by teams paying players under the table, and players regularly jumping from one club to another for better financial remuneration.
The Demand for Baseball
Before there were professional players, there was a recognition of the willingness of people to pay to see grown men play baseball. The demand for baseball extends beyond the attendance at live games to television, radio and print. As with most other forms of entertainment, the demand ranges from casual interest to a fanatical following.
Many tertiary industries have grown around the demand for baseball, and sports in general, including the sports magazine trade, dedicated sports television and radio stations, tour companies specializing in sports trips, and an active memorabilia industry. While not all of this is devoted exclusively to baseball, it is indicative of the passion for sports, including baseball.
A live baseball game is consumed at the same time as the last stage of production of the game. It is like an airline seat or a hotel room, in that it is a highly perishable good that cannot be inventoried.
The result is that price discrimination can be employed. Since the earliest days of paid attendance teams have discriminated based on seat location, sex and age of the patron.
The first “ladies day,” which offered free admission to any woman accompanied by a man, was offered by the Gotham club in 1883. The tradition would last for nearly a century. Teams have only recently begun to exploit the full potential of price discrimination by varying ticket prices according to the expected quality, date and time of the game.
Baseball And The Media
Baseball and the media have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship since newspapers began regularly covering games in the 1860s. Games in progress were broadcast by telegraph to saloons as early as the 1890s. In 1897 the first sale of broadcast rights took place.
Each team received $300 in free telegrams as part of a league-wide contract to transmit game play-by-play over the telegraph wire. In 1913 Western Union paid each team $17,000 per year over five years for the rights to broadcast the games. The movie industry purchased the rights to film and show the highlights of the 1910 World Series for $500. In 1911 the owners managed to increase that rights fee to $3500.
It is hard to imagine that Major League Baseball (MLB) teams once saw the media as a threat to the value of their franchises. But originally, they resisted putting their games on the radio for fear that customers would stay home and listen to the game for free rather than come to the park. They soon discovered that radio (and eventually television) was a source of income and free advertising, helping to attract even more fans as well as serving as an additional source of revenue. By 2002, media revenue exceeded gate revenue for the average MLB team.
Originally, local radio broadcasts were the only source of media revenue. National radio broadcasts of regular season games were added in 1950 by the Liberty Broadcasting System.
The contract lasted only one year however, before radio reverted to local broadcasting. The World Series, however has been nationally broadcast since 1922. For national broadcasts, the league negotiates a contract with a provider and splits the proceeds equally among all the teams. Thus, national radio and television contracts enrich the pot for all teams on an equal basis.
In the early days of radio, teams saw the broadcasting of their games as free publicity, and charged little or nothing for the rights. The Chicago Cubs were the first team to regularly broadcast their home games, giving them away to local radio in 1925. It would be another fourteen years, however, before every team began regular radio broadcasts of their games.
1939 was also the year that the first game was televised on an experimental basis. In 1946 the New York Yankees became the first team with a local television contract when they sold the rights to their games for $75,000. By the end of the century they sold those same rights for $52 million per season.
By 1951 the World Series was a television staple, and by 1955 all teams sold at least some of their games to local television. In 1966 MLB followed the lead of the NFL and sold its first national television package, netting $300,000 per team. The latest national television contract paid $24 million to each team in 2002.
As the importance of local media contracts grew, so did the problems associated with them. As cable and pay per view television became more popular, teams found them attractive sources of revenue. A fledgling cable channel could make its reputation by carrying the local ball team. In a large enough market, this could result in substantial payments to the local team.
These local contracts did not pay all teams, only the home team. The problem from MLB’s point of view was not the income, but the variance in that income. That variance has increased over time, and is the primary source of the gap in payrolls, which is linked to the gap in quality, which is cited as the “competitive balance problem.” In 1962 the MLB average for local media income was $640,000 ranging from a low of $300,000 (Washington) to a high of $1.2 million (New York Yankees).
In 2001, the average team garnered $19 million from local radio and television contracts, but the gap between the bottom and top had widened to an incredible $51.5 million. The Montreal Expos received $536,000 for their local broadcast rights while the New York Yankees received more than $52 million for theirs. Revenue sharing has resulted in a redistribution of some of these funds from the wealthiest to the poorest teams, but the impact of this on the competitive balance problem remains to be seen.
Baseball has been about profits since the first admission fee was charged. The first professional league, the National Association, founded in 1871, charged a $10 franchise fee. The latest teams to join MLB, paid $130 million apiece for the privilege in 1998.
Early Ownership Patterns
The value of franchises has mushroomed over time. In the early part of the twentieth century, owning a baseball team was a career choice for a wealthy sportsman.
In some instances, it was a natural choice for someone with a financial interest in a related business, such as a brewery, that provided complementary goods. More commonly, the operation of a baseball team was a full time occupation of the owner, who was usually one individual, occasionally a partnership, but never a corporation.
This model of ownership has since changed. The typical owner of a baseball team is now either a conglomerate, such as Disney, AOL Time Warner, the Chicago Tribune Company, or a wealthy individual who owns a (sometimes) related business, and operates the baseball team on the side – perhaps as a hobby, or as a complementary business. This transition began to occur when the tax benefits of owning a baseball team became significant enough that they were worth more to a wealthy conglomerate than a family owner.
A baseball team that can show a negative bottom line while delivering a positive cash flow can provide significant tax benefits by offsetting income from another business. Another advantage of corporate ownership is the ability to cross-market products. For example, the Tribune Company owns the Chicago Cubs, and is able to use the team as part of its television programming.
If it is more profitable for the company to show income on the Tribune ledger than the Cubs ledger, then it decreases the payment made to the team for the broadcast rights to its games. If a team owner does not have another source of income, then the ability to show a loss on a baseball team does not provide a tax break on other income.
One important source of the tax advantage of owning a franchise comes from the ability to depreciate player salaries. In 1935 the IRS ruled that baseball teams could depreciate the value of their player contracts. This is an anomaly since labor is not a depreciating asset.
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